For better or worse, when you get married in the United States, the legal system is largely constructed for those who practice a specific type of Christian faith. That typically means a clergy member will join the couple in the eyes of the law.
But American participation in organized religion has been trending downward since the 1970s. Millennials have parted ways with religious tradition in the greatest numbers, and Gen Z is being raised by a generation who is markedly less religious than its parents.
It can feel weird to pay an officiant from a religion you don’t follow to oversee one of the most important commitments of your life. In many states, the only other option is a judge or justice of the peace, which again forces the couple to invite an outsider to this intimate life milestone.
In a handful of states, you can get around the outsider officiant quandary through a process called self-uniting marriage or self-solemnization. This solution doesn’t just save you awkwardness. It can also save you cold, hard cash by eliminating the wedding day officiant fee.
What is Self-Uniting Marriage?
Ironically, the way to get married without an officiant was paved by religious tradition. Self-uniting marriage is a Quaker tradition stemming from a belief that every person has equal access to God. Because there is no need for clergy mediation, you won’t find an officiant at a Quaker wedding ceremony. Rather than having a clergy member marry the couple, the couple itself officiates the ceremony.
Religious freedom is an important part of American ethos. This made it particularly important in states with historically large Quaker populations – like Pennsylvania – that Quaker ceremonies be accepted within the law.
The Baha’i faith also practices self-uniting marriages, and is often explicitly mentioned in state laws surrounding self-solemnizing marriage.
I’m Not a Quaker. Can I Self-Unite?
You may be wondering how all this is helpful to you. You probably aren’t Quaker yourself. You may or may not believe in God at all. Can you even legally conduct a self-uniting marriage if you’re not Quaker?
The answer is, “Yes.” At least in some states.
It wasn’t always so clear, though. In 2007, a couple who did not practice the Baha’i or Quaker religions applied for a self-uniting marriage in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. They were asked about their religion, and they told the truth. Because of their answer, they were denied a marriage license.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stepped in, arguing the couple’s First Amendment rights had been violated. They had been asked about their religion, and because of their answer were denied a government service, which was deemed religious discrimination.
A U.S. district judge ruled that the ACLU was right. Since then, the organization has enabled couples in other counties across the state of Pennsylvania to get married through self-solemnization. Although you might come across a county clerk who does not initially want to comply, legally you do not have to be Quaker or Baha’i to be issued a self-uniting marriage license in Pennsylvania.
This same logic has been adopted by most states that allow self-uniting marriage.
Which States Allow Self-Uniting Marriages?
There are only a handful of states that have self-solemnization written into their laws. And each state manages the practice slightly differently.
Maine and Nevada allow self-uniting marriages, but only for specific faith groups. In Maine, you must be a member of the Quaker or Baha’i faiths. In Nevada, the only allowances to the traditional officiant route are for Quakers and American Indians.
However, in all other states that allow self-uniting marriages, there’s more leeway.
Self-uniting marriage often goes by the term “non-clergy wedding” in the state of California. In 2016, with some prompting from advocacy group Americans United, San Francisco County allowed the first official atheist, non-clergy marriage in California.
Not all county clerks will be familiar with the process of obtaining a non-clergy marriage license outside of the context of the Quaker faith. But there is a precedent you can call on when making your case, and you should be able to have a non-clergy wedding regardless of your faith.
In Colorado, anyone can seek out a self-solemnizing marriage license. Colorado is also one of the only places where couples are not required to have witnesses. It can literally be just you and your partner.
District of Columbia
Washington, D.C.’s laws around self-uniting marriage are similar to Colorado’s. Anyone can self-solemnize without an officiant, and no witnesses are required.
Illinois state law allows self-uniting marriage, and it does not specify which religion you must observe to take part in the practice.
In Kansas, you can have a self-uniting marriage as long as this type of wedding ceremony is congruent with your religious faith and traditions. However, Kansas law does not specify which religion you must affiliate with, making it possible to get a self-uniting marriage even if you are not Quaker or Baha’i.
In Pennsylvania, you do not need an officiant to get married regardless of your religion. If the county clerk balks, which is more common in rural counties, you can either point to precedent or try another clerk in a nearby county.
Wisconsin allows self-uniting marriages and does not limit the practice to those of the Quaker or Baha’i faith. Technically, self-uniting marriage must be a part of yours or your soon-to-be spouse’s religious practices, but you should not be denied a marriage license simply because you’re not Quaker or Baha’i. In fact, the clerk’s office should not ask you to prove your faith per state guidelines.
What’s the Application Process?
The application process for a self-uniting marriage license should be the same or similar to the process required by anyone seeking a “traditional” marriage license. Before the pandemic, that meant scheduling an in-person appointment with the county clerk’s office and answering a few questions.
During the pandemic, many counties across the country are allowing this meeting to happen online via Zoom or another teleconferencing platform. Generally speaking, you will need to show your ID on camera to prove your identity, and from there you can ask and answer any questions.
“We know these are life events and we wanted to make sure our office didn’t meet a beat,” says Paul López, the clerk and recorder for the city and county of Denver. Denver County started offering online marriage license application appointments early in the COVID-19 crisis.
“We prioritized it, and at the end of the day, love prevailed. Even during the pandemic.”
The availability of online marriage application appointments varies from county to county, even within the same state. In most counties that still allow for or require you to come in person to apply for a marriage license, you will need to schedule an appointment rather than showing up unannounced.
Is Self-Solemnization More Expensive?
No, self-solemnizing is almost always less expensive than having a traditional marriage ceremony with an officiant present. This is because you won’t have to pay any fees or feel obligated to “gift” money to a third-party.
However, some counties will charge a slightly higher fee when you apply for a self-uniting marriage license. For example, in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, you won’t pay any extra fees for your marriage license just because you’ll be married via self-solemnization. But on the other side of the state in Philadelphia County, you will incur an additional $10 fee.
This fee is nominal. When you account for the money you’re saving on officiant fees, you still come out on top.
Can Self-Uniting Wedding Be Remote?
Sometimes! It depends on where you live. It’s good to check in advance and you may find that there have been changes in policies, or at least talk of changes, because of the pandemic, which has paved the way for many official remote activities.
States with Remote Self-Solemnization
Denver is a great place to have a remote marriage ceremony, from obtaining your marriage license to saying your vows. Colorado requires no witnesses at your wedding ceremony, allowing you to Zoom guests in without needing their signatures or physical presence.
The District of Columbia’s law similarly requires no witnesses, allowing you to have a completely remote wedding.
California is unique in that it still requires two witnesses be present at your wedding ceremony per state law. But it explicitly allows your witnesses to attend the wedding via online teleconferencing.
States Where You Might Have to Self-Solemnize in Person
In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the rules are more blurry. Prior to the pandemic, two witnesses were required to attend the ceremony in person. During the pandemic, neither state wanted to commit to requiring this physical presence and advised couples to get legal consultation if they had any concerns.
You will also want to make sure to seek specific legal counsel if you are getting married in Kansas or Illinois.
Odds are, the validity of your marriage ceremony won’t be challenged unless you decide to get divorced later. At that point, though, if your marriage is determined to not be legally binding, so a divorce would be unnecessary. The courts may determine that you were never married in the first place, which can have significant financial and legal ramifications.
Brynne Conroy is a contributor to Codetic.